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Catholic Anxiety: Feminist Nuns!

June 17, 2010

When it comes to Catholicism, women have had a simultaneously prominent and highly scrutinized presence throughout its history. Recently, the excommunication of Sister Margaret McBride has illustrated that it’s no less difficult for nuns.

When I heard about the scandal in Phoenix, I admired the hospital staff for defending the decision to save a woman’s life. It appeared that the patient had weighed her options, and had made a decision to be considered by the board of ethics at the Arizona hospital. Yet, as stated in the article, there are circumstances in which staff may perform this medical procedure:

According to the medical directives that the hospital follows, abortion is defined as the directly intended termination of pregnancy, and it is not permitted under any circumstances – even to save the life of the mother…On the other hand, a second directive says that “operations, treatments and medications that have as their direct purpose the cure of a proportionately serious pathological condition of a pregnant woman are permitted . . . even if they will result in the death of the unborn child.

A recurring theme arises: the female body is public property, even when it comes to religious devotion. And, if one woman is identified as a threat to Catholic doctrines, the Church has no problem launching a large-scale investigation of all women that are members of the Catholic church. It’s clear that the anxiety about women is just below the surface, poised for action. In fact, the image that I have included above is a Baroque sculpture of a 16th century Carmelite nun who was investigated during the Spanish Inquisition! Her name is St. Teresa of Avila, and she was ordained a Doctor of the Catholic Church in 1970.

Perhaps this is why women have formed support groups in order to establish solidarity in the face of workplace discrimination. An outstanding example is the Disruptive Women in Health Care Facebook page, which featured Sister McBride’s excommunication a week after the National Catholic Reporter announced her case.

According to Lisa Miller’s Newsweek article, “Female Troubles,” this is exactly what Cardinal Franc Rode is afraid of. Cardinal Rode explained his mass investigation of Catholic nuns as a situation that seeks to correct a very specific situation-American feminist practices. He explained it as a

certain secular mentality that has spread in these religious families, and perhaps also a certain feminist spirit.

And, of course, it is only women that will be observed for “defective behavior.” In other words, educating the community and encouraging socially conscious behavior. What’s wrong with this picture? Feminism is not strictly for women only; both women and men have access to its practices. Based on such an understanding, it is absurd to enforce a dress code in order to discipline unruly nuns. Yet, Miller stated that clothing is in fact an established regulatory tool by the Church:

Anxious observers and commentators worry that, as a result of the inquiry, nuns will be forced to take steps backward—into the head coverings and habits, for example, that were made optional after the Second Vatican Council in 1965.

Judith Butler would not be amused. By reducing women to objects that personify religious power and its potential destruction, women are put in a very compromising position. And, as made very clear by Cardinal Rode, it doesn’t matter if they live or die. It is presumably a sacrifice that serves to save a child’s life. Why then, are children not protected in other circumstances?

In Liliana’s Loufbourow’s revelatory article on the Ms. Magazine blog, “If Sister McBride is No Catholic, Neither Am I,” it is noted that womens’ bodies are not fully protected under Catholic religious doctrine, no matter what the situation. This is not the first time that a perceived feminist threat to Catholic ethics has been expressed. In fact, women have been the subjects of an outlaw identity in the Catholic Church before, and using the term “feminism” is Cardinal Rode’s way of appropriating it as a gender-specific threat. By naming the root of this evil, he openly aligns feminist beliefs with secularism that could potentially destroy the pious fabric of the Catholic Church. Loufbourow expressed outrage at such attitudes, and encourages readers to contact St. Joseph’s Hospital for enforcing safety measures in matters of womens’ health. When considering matters such as these, local activism is a means of personalizing our views. Email, Facebook, write, voice your support for those spaces that do protect women, children, and men alike.

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